Intellectual Freedom in Academic Scientific Research under Threat

Intellectual Freedom in Academic Scientific Research under Threat

Author: Jonathan Faiz

The change in attitudes of policy makers and funding bodies from funding interesting curiosity-driven research to research that has a proven practical importance has led British academics to establish the Council for the Defence of British Universities. In his Editorial in Angewandte Chemie, Sir John Meurig Thomas, University of Cambridge, UK, outlines some of the discoveries that were made in academic research and were motivated by curiosity but nonetheless resulted in practical importance that was not planned. These examples include work by Maxwell and Faraday on the relationship between magnetism and electricity that resulted in the dynamo, Dirac’s work on quantum mechanics that led to the discovery of the positron, which is used in emission tomography, Townes’ work on the population of electrons in simple molecules that led to the maser, an early form of the laser.

Thomas argues that the freedom to pursue scientific research motivated by intellectual curiosity is being restricted by research funding bodies, and points out that in Britain, the requirement that funding applications be accompanied by a justification of national importance in a 10 to 50 year time frame was actually abolished after an outcry from academic researchers. He concludes that running universities like businesses and reducing the intellectual freedom of researchers will be catastrophic for academics in both sciences in humanities, as well as society in general.

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